Issue #10: October 2012

image of Sarah Gridley

An Interview with Sarah Gridley by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I’d like to ask first about place in your work. The natural world pervades your poems in unexpected ways. The first poem of Weather Eye Open is “Cuckoo’s Report”; in Green is the Orator a Hopkins-like needle is threaded in the opening line: “About the star-cold abundance of August sand—” What’s the role of the natural on your work?

Sarah Gridley: I do not experience a natural world as distinct from any other world. Natural—social—symbolic worlds are to my mind expansions and contractions in the same place at the same time, in the moment’s movement from the perceptual to the conceptual. Charles Simic says, “One is neither world, nor language, nor self.” I am one sensing being among a diversity of sensing beings—not all exclusively human. My vagrant subjectivity is given contour, or as Hopkins would say, “instressed,” through its insufficiencies, its searches for reciprocities. I experience these backwards and forwards movements not as checkmarks in a quest for coherence or self-assertion—I experience them as tenuous affirmations of my momentary inherence, of being “kind” in the literal sense of kindred, of belonging to something far beyond my ability to know or name. As Paul Crowther writes in Art and Embodiment,

Otherness is radically transcendent. We can take some hold of it, but there is always more than can be contained in any present moment of perception or sequence of actions…our most fundamental relation to this world is not that of an inner ‘thinking subject’ gazing out upon and ‘external world.’ Rather, we inhere in the sensible.

JMW: How do poems come to you? How long have you been working on the poems in Green is the Orator? Do you see them as a kind of progression from Weather Eye Open?

SG: I’ve always liked John Ashbery’s notion that “Poetry is mostly hunches.” I feel that is true. For me, hunches serve to shape confusion, to refine the problem you didn’t know you needed to have. They put you in the right kind of darkness—or lightness. And give you the right posture for poetry: head tilted, ears pitched somewhere out the window, eyes not fixed on any pre-established thing. I have been rereading Four Quartets lately for a class I am teaching on devotional poetry. There is a line that comes to mind around this question of how poems arrive: “For us, there is only trying. The rest is not our business” (East Coker, line 189). The trying is how poems come to me: writing poems is a trying experience, in both the positive and negative sense of the word.

I’ve been working on Green is the Orator for a little less than 5 years. Weather Eye Open was published in April 2005, and this new book will be published in spring 2010.

I see these poems as a progression from Weather Eye Open, yes, but perhaps an effort to break with those earlier poems, too. I wanted for my next book to come closer to a reader, I wanted to make my gestures less cryptically compressed, more open and inhabitable. Also, in the space between these two books, death and its mysteries came into my life in repeated waves. These newer poems are negotiations with those feelings, expressions of grief, crises of faith, and re-subscriptions to what Dylan Thomas helpfully calls “sea-faiths.”

JMW: My OED tells me that “redundancy” is superabundance, superfluity, and surplus. What draws you to this concept in your work?

SG: I start off my poem, “Sending Owls to Athens” with the line, “Redundancy redundancy.” I had come across the idioms, “sending coal to Newcastle” and “sending owls to Athens” and thought them very funny. I suppose the opening line of the poem is a gesture toward nonsense, but I was quite seriously interested in the concept of redundancy: its etymology (from unda, for wave); its inherence in any natural language; its strict absence in negotiating telephone codes; the space it opens for chance and choice (see 1984: “The Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised”). Redundancy is often humorous, in the way that absent- minded, or innocent linguistic errors typically are. I see it as both a kind of echo chamber, a manifestation of “eternal return,” but also as a pocket, a portal—for subtle differences, for slippage, subversion, and escape. Superabundance, superfluity, yes, exactly: as in that master form of redundancy—evolution.

JMW: The title of your new book, Green is the Orator, comes from Wallace Stevens: “Green is the orator / Of our passionate height.” What’s the link developed by your work to Stevens’s work?

SG: We go to poets for different reasons, for different resources. Stevens is Mon Oncle, my Big Lebowski, my Dude. Many of my working compasses point wishfully (ok, worshipfully) back to his poems. His ear is for me among the most beautiful sound chambers in English-language poetry. Through that trust in the ear he performs a unification of thought and feeling that is uncanny, revelatory. Who else makes superlatives happen (“This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous”—“ fresh transfigurings of freshest blue”—“acutest at its vanishing”). I do not read him, as some do, as an aesthete escapist, however exquisitely he courts the beautiful. There are children picking up bones (our bones) in his poetry. The poem you quote from, from which I take my title, goes on to say:

Let the giantness fall down

And come to nothing. Let the rainy arcs

And pathetic magnificences dry in the sky.

Secrete us in reality. Discover

a civil nakedness in which to be,

In which to bear with the exactest force

The precisions of fate, nothing fobbed off, nor changed

In a beau language without a drop of blood.

I love his use of the verb, “fob” there, the consciousness that to cheat or trick in the realm of language costs us blood, the suggestion that the exchange of reality for merely “beau” language will render us anemic, if not entirely lifeless. Are we putting blood into, or sapping it out of our language? There is an economy there, an “account-ability,” that fascinates me.

JMW: In a recent piece you’ve written for an anthology of teaching essays I’m gathering, the concepts of wildness and domestication are at odds. What’s important about wildness to you? What do you see as your role in the classroom, then?

SG: Wildness is important to me as a poet because, in the realm of the sayable, which we are always trying to expand and “sound” out, it is the un-pre-dictable: you cannot say beforehand what it is, where or what it will be or do. Its performances are unscripted, unpremeditated. Domestication is inevitable, because we want to live with wildness, don’t we. We breed out wildness so that we might keep (not to mention use) safer versions of it in our lives. I remember Brenda Hillman saying many years ago, as a visitor to workshops in Montana, that she keeps a note to herself above her desk: “REVISE TOWARD STRANGENESS.” That was some ten years ago that she said this, but it has stayed with me as an important touchstone. I also think of Gloria Steinem’s response when asked, at one stage of her life, why she had never married: “I don’t mate well in captivity” (as it happened, she did end up marrying at age 66). I ask myself frequently: What kind of context for poetry is a classroom, which constitutes varying degrees of self-imposed—and world-imposed—captivity? The longer I teach, the more I mistrust the word, “educate”—literally, to lead out of. Out of what? Shouldn’t we be leading into ambiguities and confusions, the better to acknowledge them, articulate them, live with them? If I value wildness, wilderness, bewilderment, how do I model that in the classroom? It would be fun to paint a wild picture of my appearance, deportment and practices in the classroom for you, but that would be facetious. I think the wildness I’m seeking to honor and make accessible in the classroom has to do with interiors, not surfaces, with “acting in” not acting “up” or “out.” To “act in” if such a phrase exists, could be to address the un-domesticated interiors we carry inside us, our deep-structured ties with wild creatures and places.

JMW: Given this sense of inextricability to the natural, what has living in Cleveland done to your work? Is industrial Ohio what made you long to be a poet?

SG: George Eliot wrote in The Mill on the Floss, “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.” She also writes, in Daniel Deronda:

A human, life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours me go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection . . . as a sweet habit of the blood.

It is a commonplace that experiences of our childhood lodge ever and afterwards in our psyche, but I think the less explored phenomena is how the places of our childhood, and that includes the natural and the man-made, lodge in us physiologically, as “habit[s] of the blood.”

I was born in Cleveland, a stone’s throw from where I now have my office at Case Western Reserve University. I was one year old when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969 because of severe oil and debris pollution. I have no direct memory of it, but I did grow up very conscious of the city’s status as “the mistake on the lake.”

I never thought I would return to live in Cleveland, but the opportunity opened up, and I am glad of it. After my MFA in Montana, I moved to Maine in 2000, and lived there for six years before getting the job at CASE. Returning to Cleveland has acted like a tonic, and eye-opener, shaking me out of the green thoughts in green shades I was able to indulge in so effortlessly in the great natural beauty of those places.

How does one develop what Eliot calls “tender kinship for the face of the earth” when one’s childhood takes place in a part of the earth like Cleveland? This is what’s striking to me about being back here: despite the many ugly things about Cleveland, the severity of its physical and socio-economic decay, I find there is in me a habit of the blood, a sweet habit of the blood, that responds positively and lovingly to being here.

Through the sensory channels of memory, my lived experience at present finds weird communion with my lived experience from childhood. The native things, the snow, the rain, the winds, the thunder boomers and magnolias, the grime, winter’s flat gray light, the boarded up buildings, the ethereal, silver-leaf interior of Severance Hall, towering horse-chestnuts with blooms like candles, gloomy Lake Erie, the gentle Cuyahoga valley, downtown’s meager skyline—the good, the bad, and the ugly all flow through my blood creating a sense of loyalty and obligation that’s difficult to explain.

It is not that Cleveland doesn’t offer places of natural and manmade beauty; it is that you cannot possibly take them for granted. The scars of industry are livid here: they are, you might say, part of the city’s shame and its hope, its catalyst for re-direction and renovation. On a positive note: the Cuyahoga catching on fire did lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the creation of the EPA (today, as cautionary reminder and/or badge of shame penance, Great Lakes Brewing Company makes a pale ale called “Burning River”). Today, there are a number of organizations and institutions working collaboratively to improve both economic and environmental sustainability, most notably, GreenCityBlueLake, The Cleveland Foundation, and Cleveland Botanical Gardens.

In his newest book, Gardens: an Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison asks us to rethink, indeed to reverse the way we typically think through the Eden myth:

Adam and Eve were not ready—they lacked the maturity—to become keepers of the garden. To become keepers they first would have to become gardeners. It was only by leaving the Garden of Eden behind that they could realize their potential to become cultivators and givers, instead of mere consumers and receivers . . . Adam . . . was made out of clay, out of earth, out of humus. It’s doubtful whether any creature made of such matter could ever, in his deeper nature, be at home in a garden where everything is provided. Someone of Adam’s constitution cannot help but hear in the earth a call to self-realization through the activation of care. His need to engage the earth, to make it his place of habitation, if only by submitting to its laws—this would explain why Adam’s sojourn in Eden was at bottom a form of exile and why his expulsion was a form of repatriation.

For me, this passage is another way of talking about Eliot’s sweet habit of the blood, and the way it translates, through the critical loops of reciprocity, into “mature” forms of care-giving.

How has growing up in Cleveland and returning here influenced my poetry? I have one poem in my new manuscript I wrote in response to a geological tour of Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery, a place that once functioned as a quarry for Euclid bluestone. In choosing that location for my “Cleveland” poem, I think I was acknowledging that my ties here are both “vertical” and “horizontal”—that in writing about this place, I must go down into, and across, the psychological and geological layers it holds open to me.

Dylan Thomas, who gave us two extraordinary treatments of his childhood in Wales, the poem, “Fern Hill,” and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, writes in the latter: “I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve night when I was six.”

Being back in my hometown, my “spot of native land,” and writing and teaching from a double site of memory and presence, often gives me a similar sense of “white-out,” of temporal blur and vertigo. Alongside that blur, or perhaps inside of it, is a sense of belonging— not because of what Cleveland offers, but because of my instinct to offer it something in return, thanks to a childhood whose “minute particulars” ensured my care for it. I do believe that we can become, as Harrison puts it, “cultivators and givers” wherever we make our habitation. Poetry and the teaching of poetry are both in my mind acts of care and attention. In working at both, I know I am drawing from a very particular resource: a childhood location whose specific positives and specific negatives shaped my feeling for the near, the native, and the everywhere else.

JMW: So much of your new book seems to draw—either obliquely or directly—from Romanticism. Seeing as Wordsworth was perhaps one of the first poets to call his and Coleridge’s poems “experiments.” (And given your affinity with Stevens, it’s hard not to hear his “All poetry is experimental poetry” echo here.) What are the connections (or disparities) between Romanticism, experiment, and lyricism in your work?

SG: Of course there are things in the Romantic voice/posture we have needed to deconstruct, even disavow. But my spirit flags under the weightless weight of postmodernism’s attitudes and postures, which begin to feel as adolescent, if not more adolescent, than the Romantic ones we seek to undermine.

I am interested in a poetic direction whereby chance opens to choice, and choice opens to chance. Is the most experimental form of poetry happening today that which completely sidelines the author, barring the intervention of choice altogether? While these experiments in de-centering the thinking subject are interesting and useful to a degree, it seems to me there are a lot of suited up “thinking subjects” congratulating themselves about the removal of “thinking subjects” from the poem.

This brings me back to the Paul Crowther idea I referenced earlier:

Otherness is radically transcendent. We can take some hold of it, but there is always more than can be contained in any present moment of perception or sequence of actions…our most fundamental relation to this world is not that of an inner ‘thinking subject’ gazing out upon and ‘external world.’ Rather, we inhere in the sensible.

To use my favorite Romantic poet’s term, the “minute particulars” of that inherence are what interest me. The many weird threads of the lyric. The opening of voice to any number of counter-forces: contradiction, interruption, dissonance, influence, delirium, silence.

What we didn’t intend, what we couldn’t control is “beyond” us. That is what chance—in happy and in horrible ways—communicates to us. An “experimental” poem does not take place from the “centering” view of an author who looks out, or from the (non) point of view of a point-less view that sneers at the discarded author. For me the experiment goes on somewhere in between.

For me, the most exhilaratingly “experimental” poems are shot through with our sense of plain dependency. They move forward in space and time through the lived complications of chance and choice. Lived complicaticomplications—not theorized ones.

This interview first appeared in Denver Quarterly, 2010.